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Watchdog: NY Times' asbestos litigation claims 'irresponsible'

Media Matters for America, a not-for-profit organization created to monitor and correct inaccurate media reports, took major exception to a Dec. 2 column in the New York Times. The column criticized Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy of New York for having recently filed a lawsuit against 70 asbestos companies potentially responsible for the lung cancer she made public in June. Since McCarthy is a longtime smoker, the writer attacked the eight-term House representative’s lawsuit as evidence that “asbestos litigation is a giant scam.”

After attacking the validity of McCarthy’s own claim, the column “The Asbestos Scam,” went on to assert that greedy lawyers and lying defendants have brought “tens of thousands of bogus cases” over the years, bankrupting more than 100 companies. According to the writer, scoundrels such as former smokers dying of lung cancer are now conspiring to falsely attribute their diseases to asbestos because they can’t successfully sue tobacco manufacturers.

“If it were only the real victims of asbestos-related diseases who sued, there would be no issue,” the column reads, acknowledging the horror of mesothelioma and the dangers of asbestos exposure.

Yet McCarthy’s claim differs little from those of other claimants. When she was a young woman, she says, her father and brothers worked as boilermakers in powerhouses and shipyards where they were routinely exposed to asbestos. As happened in innumerable cases, they brought asbestos home on their clothing, exposing the future congresswoman as she did their laundry. The fact that McCarthy smoked is not unusual, and it doesn’t negate the fact that she was exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos in her youth.

Moreover, the allegation that fraud in asbestos litigation is widespread has been refuted fairly decisively by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. At the behest of asbestos defendants, the House Judiciary Committee asked the GAO, Congress’s own independent, nonpartisan “watchdog” agency, to look into the matter.

The agency’s extensive investigation included interviews with officials at asbestos trusts to scrutinize the processes they used to audit claims for potential fraud. All had fully sufficient auditing processes in place. Of those officials interviewed by the GAO, “none indicated that these audits had identified cases of fraud,” according to the agency's Sept. 2011 report.

Considering that GAO report, combined with the writer’s neglecting to mention existing fraud-prevention mechanisms within the legal system itself, prompted Media Matters to call the Times’ columnist’s reporting “wholly irresponsible.”

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